3 Powerful Reasons Running Is Great for Your Aging Knees

Julia Hubbel, Walkabout Saga, Horizon Huntress


Photo by Fitsum Admasu

Why I stopped listening to my aging friends who don’t exercise

A few years ago I told my friend Jan that I was going to return to running, a sport that sustained me for many decades, but that I had sidelined for a while. My body, then around 63, hungered for it. Not endurance racing, not Tough Mudders, not triathalons. Just regular two- to three-mile, medium- speed runs on the hilly streets near my then-Colorado home.

It varies the routine, gets me outside on pretty mornings before the traffic gears up and I get to watch the sunrise. In all, a terrific way to begin the day.

Her immediate response was that whiskered Conventional Wisdom that running would ruin my knees. She of course doesn’t run. Nor does she swim or do yoga or anything else, which at 74, might be a good idea, as she is fast losing her flexibility and her ability to withstand and heal from injuries. Decades ago she was a terrific athlete, but the payment plan ran out on that part of her life a long time ago. She might want to put more money into the bank.

But bad for the knees?


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You and I are far, far better off dashing out door (for me, some days that means limping). At any age, if you can manage it.

In fact, most of us who do run (which I do, happily ignoring her advice) find that

1. Cranky knees do much better with the exercise. Runners, as this Outside article explains, often find that 2. Their lower weight and regular movement actually improve knee function.(author note: weight often varies, obviously, but movement is synovial fluid's best friend in any case)

Wait for it.

Ah, but you say, I already have osteoarthritis! Running will make it worse!

Sorry, but that doesn’t fly either. This new study comes to a wholly different conclusion. From that study:

Contrary to what we expected, we found little evidence to suggest that running is harmful in this cohort… Among individuals at least 50 years of age with knee OA [i.e osteoarthritis], running was not associated with longitudinal worsening knee pain or radiographically defined structural progression. Additionally, runners also had more improvement in knee pain compared to non-runners, suggesting that there may be a benefit to running from a knee health perspective in people who have knee OA.

So ,

3. Even if you do have OA, and I do, running keeps me running, as it were.

While I hate to pop Jan’s bubble, and poke further holes in her excuses (she could walk, or hike, or swim, or spend more time walking the energetic dogs, for example,) she is more likely to have knee pain from not working them out than from excusing herself from working for fear of knee pain.

Let’s be clear, however. This doesn’t mean that I recommend, or anyone does, that you head out and leap into ultra running despite cranky joints. What it does say is do exercise, which thank you, we knew already. More importantly the study made it clear that nobody who was tracked for this study ran more or less to prove a point, nor did they much change their existing routine. Like most folks who are juggling some symptoms, the study subjects kept a finger on the pulse of their bodies.

Which is a good idea no matter what kind of exercise we’re doing. Especially as we age.

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There are a great many old wives’ tales about working out. Increasingly, I hear them from folks who don’t bother to exercise at all. That gives them a handy excuse to avoid the work. Problem is, exercise (not overdoing it) is always going to win out over inactivity. As I learn from long practice, if a joint barks, I try a few more reps. I often find that the barking is my body’s reminding me that I was sitting for too long. Or, if it’s an injury, I do something else.

To wit, when I hit the gym after a rather sedentary trip in Mongolia (we drove 1400 miles in five days, for starters; you do the math) my body was angry at me indeed. Too many folks go sit or lie down, thinking it wants more rest. What it wants is work, and it won’t stop hurting until it gets it. Which is why after an hour punching iron, I feel a whole lot better. I can’t wait to hit the morning pavement.

The rush of blood and the feel of sweat are invigorating, and the aches subside. The body is built to move. Period. When we don’t, our bodies complain.

It’ll bark at you like a barnyard dog when you start up after a long hiatus, too, because it didn’t much like being ignored. Probably the best approach is regular maintenance, like the car, but with less gas. Not easy, of course, but once you start it’s a lot easier to maintain.

My running times are a joke. That’s not why I do it. My body simply likes to run. What does your body like to do? Perhaps that’s what you might want to do, if indeed you are able. Or hike, or swim, or lift, or row. Doens't matter. What matters is work. Joyful movement.

Jan won’t. She’s decided. However, it’s uniquely unhelpful for those who don’t exercise at all, and who clearly don’t research the topic, to hurl unfounded, baseless advice at those of us who are looking forward to lacing up three or four mornings a week, just to vary the overall routine.

She can be right about her knees. The older she gets, the harder it's going to be to get them to work without steady, thoughtful demands. Note that I didn't say endurance racing. Just, steady, thoughtful demands, which is what the body is designed for. Magnificently so, in fact.

I’m going to do what I learned to do long ago: listen to my body, not my non-exercising friends. This body wants to run.

So we’ll run. My knees will be much happier for it.

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